Volcanic: Bluegrass Underground Tapes Season II
“It’s like something you’d dream up. It doesn’t seem real, but it is. And there’s a chandelier to boot.”
These were the words from a dazzled and dazzling Sarah Jarosz as she took a pause from her music last Saturday afternoon, looking around the Volcano Room and shared her feelings with a highly attuned audience. I saw my first Bluegrass Underground on a postcard autumn day in 2008 when my pals The Infamous Stringdusters played the show. I’ve grown to know the producers and the team quite closely because I work with them on Music City Roots, the sister show. And having known the show for these four-plus years and seen it grow to a successful PBS TV series, I nearly fell into the complacency trap. It’s just good old Cumberland Caverns after all, site of thousands of scouting overnights and now dozens of Bluegrass Underground shows.
But this weekend dispelled that nonchalance. The cave glowed with nebular light. Even the road-hardened veterans found the venue remarkable. (Vince Gill cracked “I thought they said I was going to play a tavern.) Through the wide eyes of the young Sarah Jarosz, we all saw the place for the miracle it is. It’s the inside out version of Telluride, the indoor Red Rocks. Let us agree to put Bluegrass Underground and Cumberland Caverns on our short list of must-see American music venues.
It’s a destination, 15 miles out of the town of McMinville and just under two hours from Nashville. There are several approaches, but all wind through quintessential Middle Tennessee terrain, with hills like fixed waves on a vast ocean, except where various strata have crinkled up, cracked off or sinkholed into pockets of exposed geologic time. The scene, right up to the mouth of the cave, is Americana pure and simple: country churches and distressed barns, dogs in vast yards, goats, cows, flags, fields and boulder-strewn forest. At the end of a short gravel footpath is a craggy cliff with a square door of iron, like a high rent fallout shelter. Enter it, and the air changes. The moist air fogs your glasses until equilibrium is restored, and it’s always 58 degrees. As festivals go, Bluegrass Underground PBS tapings are a little on the cool side, but you at least have certainty that the temperature will never change and it won’t ever rain.
To reach the BU music space, it’s an easy but exciting walk through a sampler platter of cave featurettes: a dripping stalactite pool, an uncanny flat ceilinged chamber, etc. Then before you’ve even begun to think about working up a sweat, you hit the Volcano Room with a dramatic reveal. You’re above it, looking down, almost eye level with the famous chandelier. It’s a huge crystal number that is said to have come out of a New York hotel and installed by a mysterious cave-obsessed lighting designer many years ago. It’s the surreal kiss on an already perfect room.
The stage features a natural proscenium with unnerving overhanging rocks, an improbably rectangular box to frame the action and a sequence of step backs into a pit of oblivion behind the performers. It’s an uncanny, beautifully irregular structure that architect Frank Gehry couldn’t conceive on his best day. And lit for television by the world-famous designer Allen Branton, it’s an utterly perfect backdrop for a performance. It’s neutral but not boring, dramatic but not distracting. The artists and artistry leap out visually and acoustically. The sound was as good as any show I’ve ever seen. Vividly present, amplified to be sure, but naturally easy on the ears.
However the first set I caught on Friday wasn’t au natural sound at all. I ran into producers Todd and Todd on my way into the cave and they invited me to see the inside of the TV truck, where our director Jim Yockey had just entered his director’s trance. In a dark cabin with pressure lock sliding doors, he sat at a glowing desk facing a wall of more video monitors than the wall at Best Buy. Seven cameras under his fingertips and at his voice command, he played the thing like a church organ. The show is not broadcast live, but his live line cut becomes the basis for editing the show later and without the urgency of trying to get the best out of the cameras in the moment, you’d never get results as good.
There on the monitors was David Mayfield, a guy who’s certainly carved out a new and unique identity for himself since the breakup of former band Cadillac Sky. The bearded, almost professorial looking Mayfield filled the screen and went bananas, as he is prone to do. His solo acoustic guitar solo was dazzling and campy and a great piece of stagecraft. But really its his songs and emotional, slightly quavering voice that set him apart. “Breath Of Love” is a room-hushing ballad and he gets the most out of it.
Then I went down in the hole for the night’s bluegrass double feature, and really are there better pure bluegrass bands in the world than Doyle Lawson’s and Del McCoury’s? This back to back headliner performance would be almost impossible to find at a major festival, but there they were. Doyle, glistening in rhinestones, led his band into “Love On Arrival” and didn’t let up the pressure for a 45 minute set that somehow packed in 13 songs. Then Del’s familiar and friendly voice filled the cave, as they hewed mostly to band classics like “She’s Left Me Again” and “Nashville Cats.” The night wrapped with a beautiful performance by The Civil Wars. I don’t think I’ve heard them better. The cave proved an ideal venue for their big dynamic shifts, with their quietest passages perfectly audible and their thundering climax of “Barton Hollow” taking on new layers of meaning 333 feet under ground.
I was lucky to catch Saturday’s music as well, and that’s when Sarah Jarosz made her remarks and played her remarkable music. With her polished trio featuring Nat Smith on cello and Alex Hargreaves on fiddle and mandolin, she showed why she sets the standard for post-modern folk music. All the proven, eternal elements are there, from heartfelt songwriting to fine picking, but so is a fascination with chamber music and jazz. I loved the liquid thumpy pizzicato opening of “Come On Up To The House,” a Tom Waits cover. The instruments danced around each other on Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells.” And yes, I adore her songwriting too, and on this afternoon without clocks or sun or time itself, I reveled in “Annabelle Lee” and “Song Up In Her Head.”
Next came Jim Lauderdale’s fun and funny bluegrass set featuring the high harmonies of Randy Kohrs, banjo by Richard Bailey and fiddling Ollie O’Shea. The songs were as solid as the rock on which Jim stood. And then perhaps Todd’s most inspired booking for the shoot: The Time Jumpers. Anybody who has any feel for the past decade in the life of Music City has to know this band, but the outside world probably does not. Nobody deserves PBS time more, because they’re the essence of Nashville’s skill and heart. And nobody sounds like them, with the triple fiddle attack, the fluid and rippling accordion of Jeff Taylor, the on-the-money bass playing of Dennis Crouch and the ringers in the gang: Ranger Doug Green and Vince Gill. Dawn Sears took a couple of her signature lead vocals, and really hearing “Faint Of Heart” in the cave is kind of seared into my brain. A pristine fusion of song, singer and space.
My weekend ended with Vince Gill’s front man set, featuring classics from his legendary country music career. “Take Your Memory With You” put me right back in my Washington DC days when I was figuring out what worked and what didn’t in country music. And I figured if Vince was involved, it must be all right. Of course, now, Vince has just parted ways with his Music Row record label, because that machinery no longer has room for a hall of famer like him, even though there’s scarcely a gray hair on his head. “Look At Us” came with an awesome set-up story about its writing, with the great Max D. Barnes and then set me to thinking about my lucky love-filled marriage and it made me weepy, like country music is supposed to do.
Well I didn’t set out to review the whole dang weekend, and anyway I can’t because I didn’t get to attend Sunday’s taping. But I’m told The Vespers, nearing the launch of their second album, kicked it up to an even higher level and gave the performance of their lives. The Black Lillies and Scott Miller performed, surely well. And I’m devastated to have missed the psychedelic dobro of Jerry Douglas down in the cathedral of stone. But I had a family anniversary to attend to in Nashville. Still, to watch the team assemble and pull off such an ambitious shoot was inspiring. The crew guys like my trusty buddy Konrad worked like African diamond miners, kicking agonizingly long days and finally crashing only after breaking down and loading out Sunday night around midnight. My miner’s hat is off to y’all.
The show should be on TV stations near everybody this Fall.